“Every man should pull a boat over a mountain once in his life.”—Werner Herzog
When we began the journey to make Days of Power, seasoned filmmakers barraged us with advice. They told us it was impossible to make this film without attaching a Hollywood studio.
We didn’t listen.
We dealt with all the challenges of a large budget production as an independent film; night scenes, rain, fire, stunts, animals, child actors. Director Jason Pagnoni, myself and the rest of the team decided to complete this big film on its small budget. This lead to an especially challenging obstacle, as I tend to write scenes without any limitations in mind. Jason’s shooting style mirrors that of a big-budget, Hollywood-type film, which was a budget we didn’t have.
How would we perform stunts safely when we couldn’t afford a stunt coordinator?
We brought in stunt consultants for our major scenes that required them to work with actors on how to create the action moments safely. The next challenge lied in how to create the puppy mill locations and show thousands of nonexistent dogs. The location was a blank slate with a large field and a barn to transform. Our budget was extremely low and their vision was to create a nightmarish style (which wasn’t easy).
I remember standing with Jay Weber, our production designer. We stared at the field and turned to look at each other, knowing what we had to work with. After a laugh we collected ourselves and committed to making it happen.
We worked with local businesses, contractors and friends donating the materials; a few local contractors came in to build the set on their days off. To make things even more complicated, we ended up building two separate puppy mill sets; one upstairs inside the barn, and one outside. This ended up serving us well because we had the liberty to shoot when it rained, with the exception of a scene where a character drowns in the puppy mill.
This created yet another big challenge: how to tackle the intensity of the drowning scene. A main character needed to drown in an alternative way to the original vision: inside a cage in the puppy mill during a thunderstorm. In reality, this happens to the animals that are on the bottom cages of a stack. Flooding arises from heavy rainfall within a short amount of time, usually because of a slant in the direction of the ground itself.
We built an extensive set, but it wouldn’t lend itself to containing the water. It also wasn’t possible to shoot with the dogs surrounding the character’s cage. There was absolutely no way to navigate it safely. We tested multiple scenarios submerging the cage in an on-location pool. In conclusion, it wasn’t a safe alternative. We proceeded to think of another option so that we didn’t have to cut the scene.
I reconsidered the idea of an antagonist drowning character (rather than a neglectful accident). We heard stories of puppy mills drowning dogs when they’re no longer able to breed and went that route instead. That way we kept the abuse theme, also solving the logistical nightmare of filming the original draft of the scene.
Once we rewrote the scene, we worked extensively with the stunt consultant to achieve a safe solution in tune with our aesthetic. Ultimately, we had to dig a hole (a six-foot hole to be exact) and figure out a way to fill it over time. We filmed until the water reached the top of the hole to allow the actor be fully submerged, all the while the character is “bound and chained”. We scheduled the scene for the next day, so there was no time to find another solution other than digging the hole by hand to allow the production designer time for set preparation. Ironically enough there was a massive storm that night. Despite the storm members of the crew dug on in shifts. Over the next six hours, we dug six feet.
The next challenge was how we would fill the hole with water without freezing our actor in ice-cold water. We lined the hole with a waterproof liner and our production designer created a drainpipe above it fed water into the hole. To keep the actor comfortable, we ran buckets of hot water back and forth from the nearby shower in the barn. The rainstorm continued through the scene’s shoot—luckily there was coverage for the hole. Our crew couldn’t fit in the space so we utilized rain gear for the camera and continued to film the scene.
The vision for the scene was to keep the framing confined and use shots that never opened up and gradually grew tighter—more restricting and intense so the tension would “choke” the viewer. The audience needed to beg for a wide shot as a way to catch a breath. A breathe they never caught. It was important that they couldn’t ever visually escape the peril. This confined framing also helped logistically.
The director’s preference for longer lenses helped to enhance the claustrophobic nature the scene needed, showcasing the horrors of the situation. It was a logistically tough scene to film and we did this sequence split over a two-day span, compared to a week time allotment for Hollywood productions. It was integral that this energy was felt within the scene. In order to build the extreme anxiety and tension, the edits was rapid, chaotic and aggressive.
This barrage of extreme constricting visuals along with an equally hostile, pulsating sound design was used to help place the viewer in the grim-fated shoes of that trapped character clawing for an escape. This is the true essence of independent filmmaking; you gather your team together, you figure out what you need to do, and you do it.
Or, in this case, you grab a shovel. MM